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Los Ninos Volunteers Adopt Border Orphanages

Times Staff Writer

Michael C. Smith lathers his face and picks up the shaver to commence a routine morning chore. Looking down, he sees a group of Mexican boys staring. The children are visiting Rancho Justicia, the San Ysidro home of Los Ninos, a nonprofit organization that helps border children.

“It occurred to me that, being raised in an orphanage by nuns, these kids don’t have a male example. They didn’t recognize what shaving was,” Smith recalled.

Smith is one of seven full-time volunteers at Los Ninos, an organization that brings food, clothing and care to Mexican orphanages. In August, Los Ninos moved from Santa Barbara to San Ysidro.

Los Ninos volunteers work in the poor neighborhoods, or colonias , of border cities. They have helped start schools, set up breakfast programs and community food banks and do odd jobs.

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Dan Fitzgerald was a political activist before he joined Los Ninos as a two-year volunteer.

“I’ve been involved in stuff like the anti-nuke movement, Jerry Brown campaigns and farm workers’ boycotts. And something seemed to be missing,” Fitzgerald said.

“When you go sit in a congressman’s office, you get the feeling that you’re changing policy. But you lack direct contact with people. Being a volunteer here allows me to do the work that is closest to my heart.”

Los Ninos is not a political organization because the volunteers do not adhere to one political line, he said.

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In the last year, Fitzgerald has taught adult literacy classes, done maintenance work at Hogar Santa Teresita, an all-girls orphanage in southeastern Tijuana, and repaired homes.

“We’ll go up to someone at a construction site and ask, ‘Are you going to throw away that good 2-by-4?’ If they say yes, we say, ‘We’ll take it.’ ”

Los Ninos began 10 years ago when Paul Weiss, a Santa Barbara businessman, visited Tijuana and was appalled to see an entire neighborhood of people trying to eke out an existence by scavenging the city dump for glass, tin, aluminum and food, said Carol Lopez, the executive director of Los Ninos.

Weiss returned to Santa Barbara and encouraged some friends to visit Tijuana and help where they could. People volunteered at orphanages because work could be accomplished there during weekends, Lopez said.

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Today Los Ninos has supporters throughout California, New York and Walla Walla, Wash., she said. Volunteers work with about 440 children at eight orphanages in Tijuana, Mexicali and Tecate.

On top of the old city dump that Weiss saw, a neighborhood, Colonia Alta Pan Americana, has been built with the help of Los Ninos and other American groups. The colonia of Baja Pan Americana, just below Alta Pan Americana, also was developed with the help of Los Ninos.

Baja Pan Americana, unlike many colonias, has electricity. Residents send their children to John F. Kennedy Elementary School, a six-classroom school in two cement block buildings, that Los Ninos helped establish. Los Ninos volunteers helped build the original wooden structure for a schoolhouse but stepped aside when a government grant for a school building came through, said Rigoberto Reyes, who is in charge of Mexican projects for Los Ninos.

During the school year, mothers of Colonia Pan Americana serve breakfast to children who might not receive a nutritious diet otherwise, said Fausto Gonzales Michel, the president of the parents’ group at John F. Kennedy. Los Ninos began the meal program and still supports it.

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“Fifty percent of the people in the neighborhood are very poor. If the children receive a breakfast at school, it complements the food they get at home, which often is not adequate,” he said.

One of the orphanages Los Ninos devotes attention to is Casa de Cuna, the largest orphanage in Tijuana. “Volunteers come in and paint the bed frames, fix broken windows and visit with the children, " said Sister Estolia Campos, a Catholic nun at the orphanage. “It’s a good organization.”

Few children in Mexican orphanages are truly orphaned, Los Ninos workers said. Many have one or both parents living but are put in an orphanage because their families cannot afford to feed them and want them to receive an education. Others are victims of child abuse or are abandoned.

Although children remain the focus of Los Ninos’ work, volunteers work with community agencies in Mexico and members of the neighborhoods to try to find long-term solutions. “Direct aid is easy, but it doesn’t result in long-term solutions,” Lopez said.

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Volunteers are the heart of the Los Ninos operation. Aside from seven full-time volunteers who stay for a year or two, a group of about 35 people come down to volunteer every weekend, except during the summer when volunteers stay from one to six weeks.

Volunteers are housed in an olive green barrack at Brown Air Field in San Diego, 4 1/2 miles from the Otay border crossing.

“Tijuana is a doorstep to the Third World,” one staff worker said. “A lot of people want to get a sense of what’s happening in the Third World, and Mexico is closer than Asia and Africa.”

For those who stay a weekend, Saturdays are devoted to work and Sundays to “social justice seminars.” But people within Los Ninos say the organization is neither politically nor religiously oriented.

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The education of Americans about Mexico is one of Los Ninos’ goals, said Bill McLaughlin of Buffalo, N.Y., and chairman of Los Ninos. “Our first goal is to help needy children in a way that maintains their dignity, but we also want to educate Americans by virtue of contact with the Third World,” he said.

The work of Los Ninos is supported through donations. Five staff members are paid. Volunteers who stay for a year find sponsors to pay their living expenses.

The main fund-raiser for Los Ninos is an annual 250-mile, 10-day marathon from Santa Barbara to Tijuana. The marathon left Santa Barbara for the 10th time Friday. A group of about 150 are expected to cross the border June 30.

Each participant was required to raise $250 in pledges. Los Ninos hopes to raise about $100,000, or about a third of its yearly budget, through the marathon, Reyes said.

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McLaughlin completed his first Los Ninos marathon eight years ago after hearing about it at his church. “I was watching the poor on TV and reading about them in the newspaper, feeling pretty comfortable with myself when I sent money,” McLaughlin said. “I just didn’t know how the poor really lived. Now that I know, my conscience is challenged to do something about it.”

After that first marathon, McLaughlin spent three weeks visiting Los Ninos projects in Tijuana and has been “hooked ever since.”

“Have you ever held a baby from an orphanage in your arms?” he asked. “It will change your life.”


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